Maasai giraffe in the highlands of Kenya


Air date: week from October 1, 2021

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A giraffe sticks out its long “blackberry ice-cream tongue” to grab Commiphora leaves. (Photo: © Mark Seth Lender)

Healthy ecosystems tend to seek a balance, and in the highlands of Kenya, that dynamic plays out in a tacit agreement between giraffes and their leafy diet. Life on Earth Explorer in the Mark Seth Lender residence brings us this comment.


CURWOOD: It lives on earth, I’m Steve Curwood.

BASCOMB: And I’m Bobby Bascomb

Healthy ecosystems are always looking for balance, and in general, any creature that does not stick to it will not survive long. Earth-based Explorer in Residence Mark Seth Lender has this example of an implied agreement for survival between species in the highlands of Kenya.

The agreement
Maasai giraffe
Laikipia plateau

LENDER: Giraffes graze in a grove of Commiphora trees. They also eat acacias, but the commiphora do not have thorns. They stretch their necks into the roof of the grove. The day is cool and bright.

Giraffes move slender and sluggish. Her movements are softness, the patination of her skin, concentric watery shapes like waves in spotted color from white to light ocher to a center of raw umber, like puddles for a child are alluring to the eye. They are alive and well and as evident as a forest. They cannot hide even behind a ghost of tangled and dark branches.

But from a distance, at the edge of the forest through sun and shade, it is not possible to tell whether the herd is between the trees or in front. How far is also confusing. And with their long legs and their long strides, how fast.

Exactly the things a predator needs to know while watching.

Herd of giraffes graze on Commiphora (Photo: © Mark Seth Lender)

And ignorance usually leaves them alone.

A giraffe sticks out its blackberry ice-cream tongue as skillfully as its index and thumb. It wraps around a stem high in the crown. The leaves rustle. She pulls it into her wrinkled mouth. Her face is furry and furrowed, she is not young, and the leaves are sweet to her.

And yet it will not stay. She won’t just eat from that one tree, nor will she go on in that single place. None of them will, not long enough to satisfy their hunger.

Because tree and giraffe have an agreement: don’t hurt me.

The tree, bitten to the core, becomes bitter as bile. And send a warning through the air, an invisible semaphore too thin to be detected except by other trees downwind who will sense and heed the warning; and then they too will make it impossible for themselves to eat it. So, giraffes hold back, even though the leaves of the grove are plump and green and good. What makes for a moving festival and means for the tree not to complain, but only to prune. Perhaps this is what the tree needs for the dense new growth that is to come. Or if it is not necessary, then at least bear it without a great price.

And so every species, giraffe and tree, can and will go on.

BASCOMB: This is Living on Earth’s Explorer in Residence, Mark Seth Lender.


Read the field note for this essay

Mark Seth Lender’s website

Special thanks go to Destination: Wildlife

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